Washington • Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius threw herself on a live political grenade Wednesday, taking full responsibility for the problem-riddled rollout of the federal health insurance marketplace and the decision not to delay the Oct. 1 launch of its troubled website.
"Hold me accountable for the debacle. I'm responsible," Sebelius testified at a packed hearing before the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
It was a theme the embattled Sebelius would repeat often during the 3 1/2-hour grilling. Time after time when Republican lawmakers sought answers about the flawed marketplace portal, Healthcare.gov, Sebelius took the heat personally, shielding President Barack Obama, her staff and the project information technology contractors who played a large role in the ongoing problems.
"The contractors who we had as our private partners told us and told this committee that they had never suggested a delay, and that was accurate," she said. "Our (HHS) team felt we were ready to go. I told the president that we were ready to go. Clearly I was wrong. We were wrong. We knew that in any big, new, complicated system there would be problems. No one ever imagined the volume of issues and problems that we've had. And we must fix it."
But the health secretary was not helped by the fact that the Healthcare.gov website was down throughout the hearing, and Republican critics on the panel constantly reminded her.
A SWAT team of government and private industry technical experts has been detailed to fix the malfunctioning marketplace and website, which serves 36 states and helps the others verify information about health insurance applicants on their state-run marketplaces.
Sebelius said she expects the federal website to be fully operational for the vast majority of users by the end of November. But she acknowledged her credibility has been damaged by months of glowing reports - from herself, her staff and the private contractors - about the progress of the operation, even though government reports cautioned that problems loomed.
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"The assessment that we have made is that it will take until the end of November for an optimally functioning website," she testified. "I know that the only way I can restore confidence that we'll get it right is to get it right. So I have confidence, but I know that it isn't fair to ask the American public to take our word for it. I've got to fix this problem, and we are underway doing just that."
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Wednesday's hearing marked the first opportunity for lawmakers to formally question Sebelius since problems first emerged shortly after the marketplace began enrolling people for 2014 coverage on Oct. 1.
Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., offered a familiar complaint about constituents having their old policies canceled because they don't meet the new coverage and consumer protection standards set by the health care law.
"Some people like to drive a Ford, not a Ferrari, and some people like to drink out of a red Solo cup, not a crystal stem," Blackburn told Sebelius. "You're taking away their choice."
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Rep. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., who opted out of the congressional health plan and uses a private insurer, told Sebelius his plan had likewise been canceled. Gardner told Sebelius that she, too, should have to purchase coverage on the problematic marketplace.
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A former governor and state insurance commissioner of Kansas, Sebelius remained calm throughout the morning as she weathered a torrent of pointed questions from Republican lawmakers who frequently cut her off in midsentence as they blasted the website's poor performance.
Never a shrinking violet, Sebelius held her ground. Citing sketchy data, she refused numerous requests from several lawmakers to disclose how many people had enrolled in marketplace health plans until mid-November.
She likewise rejected a request by Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Texas, to ask for the resignation of one of her top lieutenants, Gary Cohen, over conflicting committee testimony he gave about the status of the website's construction.
She declined a request, as well, by a Democrat, Rep. Bruce Braley of Iowa, to extend the marketplace open enrollment period by two months to May 31, 2014.
And while she testified she gave the president "regular updates" on the development of the marketplace, Sebelius refused to say that Obama was ultimately responsible for the website failures, despite repeated pressure by GOP lawmakers for her to do so.
The bungled health care rollout has prompted 32 House Republicans to call for Sebelius' resignation, and the problems have appeared to weaken support for many of the Affordable Care Act's main provisions among some congressional Democrats.
But White House deputy press secretary Josh Earnest said Obama has "complete confidence" in Sebelius.
"She took responsibility for many of the problems that are evident with the website," Earnest said of her testimony, "but she also deserves credit for the other aspects of the Affordable Care Act's implementation that have gone well."
Obama was in Boston on Wednesday, touting the health law in historic Faneuil Hall, where former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney signed that state's universal health care law in 2006, which served as a model for Obamacare. Despite the problems, Obama vowed to "grind it out" on the health care law, noting that the GOP-sponsored Medicare prescription drug program had similar problems when it was first introduced.
"There were even problems with the website," Obama recalled.
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He said Democrats had opposed much of the prescription drug legislation, but "once it was the law, everybody pitched in to try to make it work. Democrats weren't about to punish millions of seniors just to try to make a point or settle a score. So Democrats worked with Republicans to make it work."
Obama called on Congress to do the same thing with the Affordable Care Act.
"Both parties working together to get the job done - that's what we need in Washington right now," he said. "If Republicans in Congress were as eager to help Americans get covered as some Republican governors have shown themselves to be, we'd make a lot of progress."
That doesn't appear likely, however. While Republicans still support repeal of the law, they now are moving to change what they don't like in the health law piece by piece. Sens. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., and Marco Rubio, R-Fla., are pushing new legislation that would allow Americans to keep their health plan, even if it doesn't meet new standards set by the health law.
"It's time to delay this," House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said Wednesday of the health law. "It's time to fix this before it gets any worse."
(Lesley Clark and David Lightman of the Washington Bureau contributed to this story.)
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